Everything in the world is conspiring to make you fall over. The ground can be slippery, slick, and studded with protrusions. The earth can move under your feet. The discarded banana peel is an ever present threat. Gravity itself exerts a constant downward pull, and any tissue straying from perpendicularity with the ground feels the pull that much more. That we manage to stay upright at all is impressive.
Not all of us do.
For youngsters, balance is something you actively practice in certain situations: it’s what you do when walking along the top of the monkey bars or ride a surfboard/skateboard/snowboard. You only think about balance when you decide to test it. Good balance enhances your ability to move through and interact with the world. It’s essential for all of us—and especially for athletes whose feats put them at regular odds with the forces that threaten to throw us off balance.
The older you get, the more the world challenges your balance. And when you’re pushing 80+ and a slight miscalculation can shatter your hip, balance is everything. Good balance lowers the incidence of those miscalculations. It’s essential for staying intact into old age.
It’s good to note that we integrate data from several different systems of the body to “balance”:
Vision—Our visual input provides a overview of the physical surroundings.
Vestibular System—The fluid in our inner ears acts as a kind of level, telling us where our bodies are in space.
Somatosensory System—The nerves in our muscles and connective tissues relay information about our position in the surroundings.
Right off the bat, we see why older people lose balance as they age. Their vision degrades and their muscles atrophy, effectively severing or severely weakening two of three systems required for good balance.
First, falls and fractures. Oldsters have weaker bones. The loss of bone itself may not increase fall risk, but it does increase the risk of fractures in the event of a fall. Weak bones make balance even more crucial.
Bone loss typically accompanies menopause, which is why over 70% of hip fractures in seniors occur in women. If you’re unlucky enough to suffer a hip fracture after the age of 50, you have a 24% chance of dying within a year.
Measuring balance in the elderly is even an effective predictor of their fall risk. Better balance, less risk.
Younger, more active people who want to enhance their quality of life and performance—athletes, weekend warriors, most people reading now—also benefit from better balance. After all, balance isn’t just standing on one foot on a stable surface. It’s also maintaining your posture and technique while moving, running, or jumping quickly—dynamic balance.
Balance predicts fall and injury risk in athletes, too, especially if they have a history of injuries, and balance training reduces the risk of injuries in volleyball and soccer players with prior history of injuries.
Okay. I’m sold, Sisson. What can I do to improve my balance?
I don’t care if you’re sick of hearing me crow about sleep. It’s that important, and I’m going to continue to detail the many facets of life affected by poor sleep.
The day after a night of sleep deprivation, your dynamic balance suffers. Your ability to integrate sensorimotor function with visual input to control posture drops. Your postural stability gets wonky. If you keep it up at a chronic level, even missing “just a few hours” each night, you impair postural control.
Aging worsens the effects of sleep deprivation on balance. Aging weakens muscles and bones, making you more prone to falls and bone breaks when you do. So stop it.
I’m kidding, kinda. Everyone progresses through space-time. We all “get older.” But your biological age—the health and resilience of your tissues, organs, and abilities—is more malleable. You can’t turn back time, but you can compress morbidity. You can live long and drop dead:
Balance isn’t all in the head. You don’t think yourself to stability. You must ultimately use your muscles to stabilize yourself. And while you don’t need to add 30 pounds of muscle and squat 3x your bodyweight to improve balance, getting stronger does help.
The slackline is the most obvious, immediately apparent way to improve balance. You hop on one, experience the leg wobbles that seem impossible to overcome, and in a few sessions you can handle yourself with relative grace and aplomb. This is real feedback that you’ve improved your balance.
Some of the studies bear this out. Slacking improves balance and postural control in female basketball players, for example, but doesn’t seem to confer non-specific balance (non-slackline) to everyone.
Research aside? After spending several years with my slackline, I’m comfortable on just about any surface. If I see a thin log spanning a creek while hiking, I’ll walk it.
Unless it spans some ravine with hungry crocodiles waiting below.
Head down to the hardware store and get one in each size. They won’t cost much more than $15, and you’ll have a quick, easy balance beam to practice on.
Don’t just walk on them. Slow bear crawling on a balance beam is an incredible test of balance.
Don’t rush through movements all the time. Move slooooowly and really feel the motion. Maintain control across the whole span.
I really like different plank variations, including contralateral and side planks, for the slow yet strong stress they place on your balance capacity.
Single leg deadlifts and single leg squats (pistols, skater squats) all require incredible balance. Furthermore, because you’re balancing under load, you’ll strengthen the musculature and prepare the connective tissue required for balancing.
An older study (which I can’t seem to dig up anymore; sorry) examining the effect of ankle taping on balance used people in bare feet as the control group because their balance was so superior. It’s obvious why to anyone with barefoot experience. You can “grip” the ground, rather than balance on a flat rubber sole. You’re no longer blunting the thousands of nerve endings lining the bottom of our feet; they can actually transmit valuable information to the “balance fund.”
Dynamic balance—the kind most important to athletes, the ability to maintain posture, position, and control throughout a movement—requires dynamic movements. You’re just not going to develop it without actually doing it.
One study had female athletes do either a plyometrics program (dozens of exercises involving broad jumps, vertical jumps, squat jumps, barrier jumps, wall jumps, drop jumps, tuck jumps—basically just a ton of jumping, focusing on maximal effort along with cutting movements with quick reactions) or a program designed to train dynamic balance and stability (jumping, with a focus on landing softly and avoiding knee valgus; balancing and lifting weights on both stable and unstable surfaces like BOSU balls and swiss balls; single leg exercises; stability and balance exercises as someone perturbs their center of gravity). Then they measured the effect on strength, power, stability (how much sway after jumping laterally), and impact force (how hard you land). Both programs improved each measure, only differing on impact force, with the balance program having a stronger effect on the dominant leg’s ability to land softly. In the end, the researchers conclude that doing a mix of both is probably best.
Another study in children supports their conclusion, finding that a combination of plyometrics and balance training improved sprint performance better than plyometrics alone.
Stand on one leg while you wait for coffee.
Walk along the back side of a park bench.
Climb a tree and walk around on horizontal branches.
Walk along the curb.
Have fun with it.
Balance is about maintaining a stable, neutral spine amidst whatever gravity and life throws at you. So always focus on the spine.
Keep your shoulders back and chest up.
Keep your feet, ankles, knees, and hips mobile, lubed up, and primed for activity.
Watch knee valgus (knee sliding inward) during movements like squats.
This is basic posture, but it’s so important. If your head juts forward and your shoulders roll forward, you’re out of position. You’ve just committed 11 pounds of skull, flesh, and brain to a bad position where gravity can yank down on it.
Now imagine running, jumping, or even just walking down the street with that big head lolling around upsetting your balance.
Closed kinetic chain movements have you act on the ground to move a weight. Your hands or feet are touching the ground or other immoveable surface and do not move. Think squats, deadlifts, pushups, pullups. These require a cohesive, balanced kinetic chain and target every tissue and joint along the chain.
Open kinetic chain movements have you act on the weight itself. Your hands or feet touch the weight and move. Think leg extensions, hamstring curls, bench presses, lat pulldowns.
Studies show that closed kinetic chain exercises have a better effect on balance.
The simplest way is to stand on one foot while doing slow, deliberate leg sweeps. Spice it up by closing your eyes and switching legs. This kind of simple balance training improves balance and, maybe most importantly, reduces the fear of falling in older adults. Less fear lowers the barrier to exercising, staying active, and enjoying life. That’s huge.
Most research has focused on mini-trampoline training’s positive effect on balance, but I’m confident larger trampolines are even more effective. I recently found myself on a 15 foot trampoline. The difference between jumping and landing with a neutral, aligned spine and jumping and landing even slightly hunched over was jarring. The former felt fluid and powerful and right. The latter felt all wrong, and I only jumped about half as high. Trampolines reward good balance. I imagine they enhance it, too.
Bounce houses work, too. The toddler-strewn floors add an element of dynamism.
Jumping—and landing—is perhaps the single best test of balance. You’re flying through the air. You’re landing. Your body wants to keep going and you need to prevent that without tearing anything or falling over. There’s a lot going on, too much to intellectualize.
That’s why actually getting out and jumping is so important for balance. Keep the basics in mind—land softly on the balls of your feet, then the heels; land with hip flexion, absorb the impact with your quads, glutes, and hamstrings; don’t let your knees drift inward (valgus); maintain that neutral spine. You do it, you land it, you do it again, you improve, you learn. Start small, and the body will take care of the rest.
Senior with creaky knees? Try small hops.
Like lunges? Try Russian lunges (no weight necessary, necessarily).
Bored of broad jumps? Try 180° jumps, 90° jumps, or 180/90° jumps onto a park table.
That’s about it for today, folks.
How’s your balance? How has balance affected your life, your performance, and your injury risk? How do you train it?
Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care.